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How Reliable Is Spell Check?

on July 8, 2016 by Proofreading Pal in Editing Tools facebook in twitter

Short Version

MS spell check has major limitations, but if we account for that, it’s an incredibly helpful tool.

Long Version

The first time I saw Office Suite’s spell check function, I just about cried with joy. (Shut up. I’m a nerd.) Gone forever would be the days of having words like “metaphore” and “ocurrance” litter my papers and irritate my professors, dragging down my grades and self-esteme . . . uh, esteem.

Later, when the grammar check function was added, I had learned enough to be skeptical. In fact, I avoided using it altogether at first. But with practice and good ole trial and error, I found that grammar check can also be quite helpful if used correctly.

The secret is knowing just what spell check can do and what it can’t.

Can Do

spellcheck2Spell check has a list of correctly spelled words, and it can compare everything we type to that list. When we type something that’s not on that list, it can give us an alert.

Can’t Do

Spell check’s list of words can’t be all-encompassing. If the list included absolutely every single way to spell all words, including names, foreign languages, obsolete variances, and the like, the list would be pretty useless. The quote “Thou need na start awa sae hasty/Wi bickering brattle” is spelled correctly, but would you really want to work with a spell check that gave that a pass?

Can Do

Spell check’s list can be expanded, both temporarily through “Ignore All” and permanently through “Add to Dictionary.”

“Ignore All” gives words a pass for as long as we don’t close the document. This is particularly helpful with complicated names like “Schwillermon,” which we (or our editing client) might later misspell as “Schwillerman” or the like. By putting an “Ignore All” on the right spelling, any misspellings will show clearly. It’s also helpful for scientific terms and words in other languages that we only want to ignore while we’re working with a specific text.

“Add to Dictionary” allows us to customize our spell check. Work with a lot of medical documents? Add “hydrochlorothiazide” and “osteochondral.” Astrophysicist? Add “protoplanetary.” Legal docs? Real estate jargon? Magic spells? Spell check can store it all. We just have to double-check that we’re spelling it correctly before we click the button.

(Autocorrect is also very helpful here, but that will be another blog post.)

Can’t Do

Spell check can’t actually learn anything. This is particularly true with the grammar function. We can tell it to ignore rules for a certain document, but the average user cannot make the function more sophisticated. Frankly, even the most recent MS spell/grammar check basically offers “grammar for dummies.”

This means the spell/grammar check will mark as “wrong” such things as the proper use of the reflexive pronoun while completely ignoring bad parallelism. It wants to stick “and” into lists before the third item, regardless of how many items are on that list. It’s useless with appositives, tense shifts, and all manner of issues with compound sentences.

So spell/grammar check is great at telling us there’s an extra space before our comma, but no matter how much we use it, it’s not reliably going to tell we that the comma itself is wrong.

Can Do

In the latest versions of spell check, the grammar check can occasionally find homonyms.

Can’t Do

But it’s not reliable. A spell check of the following passage with the latest MS Word has to offer still gave me the all-clear:

I can right all sorts of things about coming to the aide of my friends, but such ax, whatever you call them, are only the epoch tail of life in our fair roll in earths theatre.

Can Do

In sum, the role of spell check is to warn us something might be wrong, and this is a really helpful warning. Spell check provides another set of eyes (minus a brain) on our document, often points out the really obvious stuff we can miss while we’re concentrating on logic and nuance.

Can’t Do

Spell check isn’t reliable enough to replace careful proofreading. (Come on, you knew that’s where this was headed.) Maybe one day it will write our papers for us and then make us a dry martini (mmmm, martini), but for the foreseeable future, it really just warns us something might be wrong and offers alternatives and possibilities. (That’s why I’ve turned off “Mark grammar errors as you type” in the options, but I have the grammar check on when I’m running the spell check function.)

So it’s good to think of spell check as an eager but somewhat dim assistant. Ultimately, as always, actual decisions should only be made by the author and editor.

Julia H.

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